Confusion whipped up in US over caning sentence: A media furore has arisen over Singapore's determination to give a young American a beating, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

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The Independent Online
THE impending caning for vandalism in Singapore of Michael Fay, a young American, is turning into a social, diplomatic and cultural controversy between West and East and within the United States, dwarfing the crimes for which it is to be meted out: spray-painting two cars and illegally possessing a few street signs.

As the days slip past before Wednesday, when Mr Fay's last-ditch appeal to President Ong Teng Cheong is to be reviewed, the furore grows here. Bill Clinton has written to Mr Ong, urging him to exert clemency and spare the 18-year-old from Ohio what Mr Clinton has publicly termed 'excessive' punishment.

For the raucous right, above all the luminaries of the radio talk-show circuit, the six-stroke beating to be administered to Mr Fay is merely his just deserts. More's the pity, Rush Limbaugh and his likes admonish their listeners, that the US does not bring back the rod to sort out its vandals and hooligans. However, a Newsweek poll suggests that for all their exasperation with crime, Americans disapprove of the caning by a margin of 52 to 38 per cent.

Among the pundits on the comment pages, the issue has provoked unexpected opinions. Liberals generally disapprove, but in the next breath agonise that to say so might amount to US 'cultural imperialism' - the assumption that its values are best.

That, of course, is the argument of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father. 'Which is more important,' he asked this week, 'the interests of a whole society, or those of an individual?' He spoke of the 'chaos' of US society, whose harping on human rights was just a 'convenient slogan'. Mr Lee defended caning as a punishment, but said it was up to Mr Ong to decide whether to heed the pleas for clemency.

The real outrage here is to be found in a somewhat unexpected quarter, on the libertarian right. William Safire, the New York Times columnist, has described the ordeal awaiting Mr Fay as 'torture'. Wednesday's lead editorial went further, calling Mr Lee's argument 'a sophistry' that rationalised abuse of the law. It urged the US companies which employ one in six of Singapore's workforce to turn up the heat.

The Times also urged George Bush to raise the issue during a visit to Singapore. The former president did not do so during a speech he gave, but earlier told students in Singapore he considered caning 'brutal'. However, he added that quiet diplomacy was probably the best way to influence another country's policy.

Mr Fay's chances of avoiding the cane still look slim, especially after the intervention of Mr Lee, who commands enormous respect. A climbdown now would mean a huge loss of face; to carry out the sentence, however, would imperil Singapore's relations with its most important ally.